Border Cantos is a timely, new and free exhibit now on view at Crystal Bridges.
As the whole world knows, my friend, Dr. George R. Tiller, was murdered on Sunday morning, May 31, 2009, while he was doing his regular Sunday activity, ushering in his Lutheran church in Wichita, Kan.
Like Tiller, I too am an abortion provider. Since I stopped doing later abortions, between 18 and 24 weeks, I have sent most of my patients seeking late second trimester abortion to Dr. Tiller's office. Some were women who faced a major threat to their life or health if they were to continue with what had been a wanted pregnancy. Or their wanted baby was diagnosed with a major anomaly incompatible with survival for more than a few days or years and only then, a life of suffering and incredible pain.
George took them when they were not able to pay for his services. He accepted patients for whom we sometimes had to give money to even make the trip. George's colleagues who knew of his deep religious faith, generosity, kindness and love called him St. George when we spoke among ourselves, though we knew it embarrassed him to hear himself addressed this way.
America's, and the world's, women have lost a champion in Dr. George R. Tiller. And Wichita and Kansas have embarrassed themselves by not protecting one of their brightest, bravest, kindest, and most generous and most faithful sons. And I have lost a friend and colleague.
George Tiller grew up in Wichita, the son of highly respected Wichita family practitioner, Dr. Jake Tiller. He served for a time after medical school in the U.S. Navy as a flight surgeon.
Soon after he and his wife, Jeanne, moved to California with the Navy, his parents, sister and her husband were killed in a small plane crash. George had expected to serve several years in the Navy, but was granted a hardship discharge to come home and deal with the loss of his family. His sister and her husband had a baby that George and Jeanne adopted and raised as their own.
George Tiller had intended to come home, take care of his parents' affairs, sell the practice and eventually train as a dermatologist.
However, it turned out his father's many patients in Wichita expected a different course for Dr. George Tiller. And George never was a man to disappoint and avoid what was expected of him. In fact, he always gave much more than expected.
Soon after taking over Dr. Jake Tiller's practice, George discovered that his father, driven by his conscience, had provided safe abortions for his patients even before the Kansas abortion laws were liberalized, years before Roe. v. Wade. And George, like his father, was driven by his conscience. Soon after Roe v. Wade was decided in 1973 he started to provide abortion care as part of his routine family practice, as did many thousands of physicians all over the country.
These were physicians who, like Dr. Jake Tiller, had seen the terrible consequences that accompanied “criminal abortions.” The vast majority of abortions done before Roe v. Wade were provided by untrained, often uncaring individuals whose patients frequently ended up desperately ill, sterile, or dead because of massive infection, hemorrhaging or terrible injuries to internal organs.
These “Doctors of Conscience” were primarily family physicians, ob-gyns and general surgeons who'd had to care for women after their back-alley abortions. They were also trained to take care of patients with incomplete abortions, infected abortions, inevitable abortions and all the problems associated with the large number of miscarriages that occur every year in our country. Remembering what they had seen, as soon as Roe became the law of the land, they began to provide safe, now legal abortion care.
Very soon after Roe, a few dedicated people, mostly young Roman Catholic men, accompanied sometimes by their priests, began to picket hospitals, medical offices and reproductive health facilities around the country where these services were provided.
And only four years after Roe, the two free-standing facilities in New York and Oregon were firebombed.
Then along came 1980 and Ronald Reagan, who ran on a “pro-life” platform.
Reagan became the first American president to address abortion in his State of the Union speech in 1984. Only a few days earlier he'd told a large group gathered in Washington to rally against safe abortion that he would consider a presidential pardon for people convicted of attacking clinics and providers.
Almost immediately physicians like Dr. George Tiller and me, and a few thousand others, became the targets of large groups of people standing in front of our offices, screaming at us, our staff and our patients: “Baby killer!” “Abortion is murder!” “Don't kill your baby!” They waved large pictures of electively aborted fetuses, more of large miscarried fetuses and sometimes of late-term stillbirths. (These pictures are still used.) They attempted to terrorize us into ending a desperately needed service. Dr. George Tiller and I refused to be terrorized.
All this negative activity, and the fear that it inspired in physicians, had a serious effect on the number of physicians willing to provide this service. In my part of Arkansas, by the end of 1983, there were only two physicians willing to provide this care: My partner and I. Then in the summer of 1984, my partner had three major surgeries and after he recovered, he told me, “God doesn't want us to do abortions anymore.” And I became the only physician in my part of Arkansas providing this service.
At that time, I really was not much aware what was going on around the country. I just knew that if I were to continue to practice as I had been, if I was determined to follow my conscience, I had to speak out; I had to tell my community what I was doing and why I was doing it.
This had the immediate effect of inspiring a major increase in anti-abortion activity in front of my office. Many Catholic, Baptist and other fundamentalist churches' priests and preachers began to deliver sermons calling abortion murder, an abomination, and told their parishioners to join them in picketing in front of my office. They encouraged them to write letters to me and to the newspaper editors in our state; to write columns, speak on TV and radio about how terrible safe, legal abortion is.
Very soon, I was asked to debate, to speak publicly in various venues. And I did. I also answered every letter I received with a return address.
In the summer of 1985, my office was firebombed. I began to get threatening calls from men, and a very few women, telling me that they were going to kill me. After the first few of these calls, I began to carry a weapon everywhere I went. We also put in a “panic button” at my office in case something happened outside that frightened my staff.
Pickets continued at my office; during the first half of 1989, we came under almost daily attack by anti-abortion militants. The largest force contained over 500 people. Two of the people who threatened to kill me, whose threats both I and our local police took seriously, picketed regularly in front of my office, one of them screaming, “Dr. Satan, come out! Come out, Dr. Satan!” An insane diabetic man was there every day for two years until “God told him to stop taking his insulin” and he died three days later from massive increase in blood sugar.
One Saturday morning, one of my staff brought her young children. One of the children said, “Momma, why does that man want Dr. Satan to come out?” After that, I became Dr. Satan when my staff wanted to tease me, and it might take me a day or so to regain my identity as Dr. Harrison.
During this time, the would-be terrorists in front of my office slowly changed the attitude of my community. People began to work in my support, writing their own letters and columns, joining me in my public activities and soon seriously outnumbering the folks who had been opposing me. Individuals and groups began to be arrested in front of my office, to do jail time and pay large fines for violation of various laws: trespassing on my property, chaining themselves to my office, super-gluing doors, vandalizing cars, attacking patients, invading my office.
While I definitely did not encourage it, young people began to curse our pickets, several of whom had buckets of urine, and worse, thrown on them as they prepared to listen to a group of smiling young people who seemed to have slowed to tell them how much they supported what they were doing. By the summer of 1989, it had become very uncomfortable to stand in front of my office.
On rainy days, water was splashed on them as they stood on the narrow sidewalk in front of my office. In winter, they were splashed with slush. Their churches began to lose members. The ministers in other churches began to speak in support of me and what I do. My community began to seriously support what I did. And soon, I no longer felt the need to carry a weapon, because my community became my security wall, both my armor and my armory. I was supported by the mayor, the city board, police, the courts, the prosecutors and judges simply because they did their jobs.
On the first Saturday in June, Dr. George Tiller's funeral was held in the College Hill Methodist Church in Wichita. The Lutheran church where he was killed was much too small to contain the people from all over this country, Canada and South and Central America who showed up to honor this remarkable man and hear his friend and children eulogize him. His wife, Jeanne, a member of the choir at their church, sang a beautiful “Lord's Prayer” for her husband, who she called “my best buddy and the love of my life.”
I find it extremely uncomfortable to cry. But I totally lost my composure at the oldest daughter's eulogy to her father and during Jeanne's beautiful song.
When we arrived at the funeral, the entire neighborhood of the church was surrounded by Wichita police and county sheriff's officers. Federal marshals were guarding every hotel where an abortion care provider was staying. It was the same at the Wichita Country Club, where an after-funeral reception was held for family, friends, National Abortion Federation members and staff, and members of other reproductive rights organizations and Medical Students for Choice, one of whom came from Montreal.
We were provided incredible security at Dr. Tiller's funeral and the reception held for us. Pickets were nowhere to be seen by most of the people attending the activities, though apparently several showed up, carried their signs and screamed at those who passed.
Wichita is a pretty town. There are many new and well-kept buildings and businesses; much highway and street improvement is going on. The streets are clean, and the homes and lawns well kept. There are gated communities and beautiful churches. It is obviously a wealthy and well-policed community. And there are both local and federal laws to keep patients and staff and reproductive health care physicians safe and free of harassment.
What happened in Wichita that allowed the amazing levels of harassment that Dr. Tiller, his staff and his patients endured since 1985 when his office, like mine, was firebombed? Dr. Tiller himself survived a previous murder attempt in 1993. Why didn't Wichita protect its native son like Fayetteville and Arkansas have protected me for the past 22 years?
Wichita's and Kansas' police and government officials, prosecutors and courts were too often influenced by mostly Republican religious fundamentalists who joined the anti-abortion criminals in their efforts to drive Dr. Tiller out of his beloved Wichita and Kansas.
A Kansas law that allows a relatively small group of citizens to call a grand jury to investigate suspected criminal conduct, intended to help Kansans prosecute powerful politicians who might otherwise never be held accountable, was used against George. He was accused of violating Kansas' late-term abortion laws. He was acquitted. This law was never meant to be used to persecute individuals who were lawfully involved in activities that religious fundamentalists found sinful. I am glad Jehovah's Witnesses never became a major force in this country or physicians providing blood transfusions to dying patients might have come under attack in Kansas.
After doctors and staff members began to be murdered in the 1990s, a Democratic Congress and Democratic president passed and signed into law the FACE act, which was supposed to make activities like those taking place in front of my office in the 1980s and Dr. Tiller's office since 1985 a federal crime. Many of us thought that this would make people like me, and Dr. Tiller and his patients and staff, less susceptible to the activities that continued at his office. But such activities increased during the Bush years.
A common pious remark among many on the Religious Right whose activities incited the murder of Dr. George Tiller is, “He sowed the wind and now he has reaped the whirlwind.”
Federal, state and local governments, in allowing the religious terrorists — as dangerous as those who kill in the name of Islam — to continue their attacks on Dr. George Tiller, his staff and his patients and their families for the past 22 years are the ones who have “sown the wind.” Now, unless there is government action on all levels, many more of us will “reap the whirlwind.”
Dr. William Harrison, 73, is a Fayetteville physician. He is a Fellow of the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists.
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